Ma Dukes Yancey prepares for Dilla Day Detroit 2013
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
James “J Dilla” Yancey, the Detroit born and raised son of Mrs. Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, is known as the greatest hip hop song producer of all time, having created a timeless soul sound and influencing a generation of music superstars before his early death in 2006. Now, as an annual celebration is set to return with a concert in his honor, Mrs. Yancey sat down to discuss this year’s Dilla Day tribute and her role in Detroit’s music industry future.
On Feb. 9, Dilla Day will light up the Fillmore Theater marquee once again, and for somebody who’s really earned it, says Mrs. Yancey.
“And even though he’s not here to see it, all of the good things that are coming for his legacy, it’s just a positive vibe as we continue to grow,” she said. “So he’ll reach his pinnacle by us moving forward.”
The second annual show will include Detroit superstar emcee Royce Da 5’9”, international star Talib Kweli, J Dilla’s younger brother Illa J, close friends Frank N Dank and rising Motor City rap group Clear Soul Forces. Part of the proceeds from tickets sold will be earned by Mrs. Yancey for the management of her son’s affairs, which left her years of financial suffering after his death.
“We all have a mission and the mission has to be fulfilled,” Mrs. Yancey said. “We have no choice.”
Mrs. Yancey is open about her life after her son’s death.
Only 32 years old when he passed, Dilla’s legacy left her as a business caretaker without proper rest to grieve for the loss of her son.
“He knew where he was going and that’s why he left us in charge,” said Mrs. Yancey. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get there and delve into it, because my mourning was an unusual thing, it wasn’t normal to me. I was in denial. So I really didn’t know where to start.”
She added that the usual comfort those in mourning would find is not always available.
“You know how you latch onto the ones around you? But every time something happens tragic in your life the ones around you are not always the ones to nurture to make you feel whole.”
Last year in February, the Fillmore marquee first shined “Dilla Day Detroit” onto Woodward Avenue, as snow piled in the streets from an evening downpour. With limousines lining the street, Detroit hip hop’s royalty came out to celebrate J Dilla and support the performing artists. The evening gave hope to many for a brighter future.
Detroit’s music industry is positioned to make a great comeback through people and organizations building media classes and businesses, and Mrs. Yancey’s Ruff Draft Records is one of those here to help the industry grow.
“We’re moving forward, we’ve got lots going on,” she said.
“Right now we’ve been charged to bring it back to what it (was). We’ve kind of lost it for sometime with Motown leaving, for certain people to think it was over. And so if we feel like that, how is the rest of the world going to embrace or look at us?
“We have to waken the city up to what we have to offer, let them know that there’s so much more, even now, because we’ve had the lessons learned by those that are older and have been in the game a long time. Some of them are coming forth now to try to do things because they just can’t sit back anymore.”
Detroit’s unique sound and rhythm have been shared worldwide for decades, so the city is no stranger to birthing stars like J Dilla. Creating a new industry is about moving forward and the opportunity is to use his global popularity to benefit the youth in the city where he developed his talents.
“This industry is cut throat on some ends,” Mrs. Yancey expressed. “And the artists, you have to have support of some type. If you don’t have a support system for what you do, you’re lost in this type of industry. Someone or something will kind of kick you up and down.”
But, Mrs. Yancey says, she’s blessed to be a part of the “craziness.”
“I love it,” she admitted. “(Music) is all I’ve ever known in my life. The whole point for me is to help me to grow and become who I really am inside, not just as Dilla’s mama, but as the person who I am, and it’s totally revolved around music, because that’s been my life.”
Dilla Youth Day will be held the same weekend as the concert, on Sun., Feb. 10 at the 5e Gallery, 2661 Michigan Ave., from noon to 4 p.m. The youth event will feature the Urban Strings Youth Orchestra, dance teams Hardcore Detroit and Motor City Rockerz, a 5eHERUbiz youth project and a hip hop beat making workshop.
“It’s all a part of allowing oneself to be a part of something,” says Mrs. Yancey. “We’re so standoffish and we have so many walls up, that we can’t receive. And that’s part of the problem, because we don’t have enough people listening to our young people or giving them the time and attention to find out if they even have gifts, much less the ability to hone those gifts.
Mrs. Yancey says that’s why it’s important for places like 5e Gallery that embrace everyone.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re coming from or how old they are, they’ve opened the door and are willing to do these things,” she said.
Mrs. Yancey understands that the foundation of her business as caretaker of her son’s music legacy is the deep love fans feel for both her and J Dilla, something she say has kept her strong and steady over the previous years.
“I have come into my own in the past year. I’ve had some bumps and bruises, but they’ve been good ones,” she said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. It’s not about me, it’s bigger than me. I don’t think that I ever thought that it was about me.”